69 pages 2 hours read

Karen Thompson Walker

The Age Of Miracles

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2012

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 2012, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles is a bildungsroman science fiction novel. Set in modern-day California, “the slowing” is the term used to describe the mysterious phenomenon of Earth’s rotation gradually decelerating. Humanity must face drastic environmental issues, such as increased days of sunlight, and this serves as the dystopian backdrop to the coming-of-age story of 11-year-old protagonist, Julia.

The Age of Miracles opens just as “the slowing” begins and is told from the perspective of sixth-grader Julia. She is the only child of Joel, an obstetrician, and Helen, a former actress. They live in a quiet suburb of Southern California alongside an eclectic mix of neighbors: Sylvia, the New Age piano teacher; the Kaplans, a conservative Jewish family; Tom and Carlotta, the aging hippie couple; and Hanna, Julia’s best friend, who is part of a large Mormon family. The book is written in the past tense, and Julia retrospectively describes the period when “the slowing” first begins.“We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it” (3), Julia remarks of the strange phenomenon that has begun to overtake her world.

At the start of “the slowing,” marital problems build between Julia’s theatrical mother and her secretive father. As an only child with few friends, Julia spends a great deal of time with her parents and senses the rift between them. Julia must also cope with her own preteen crises, such as teasing from her peers, curiosity surrounding puberty, and her intense schoolyard crush on her classmate, Seth Moreno, a moody skateboarder whose mother has breast cancer.

As the slowing progresses, the turning of Earth increasingly decelerates and the days elongate. In this new world order, society becomes divided between “real-timers” and “clock-timers”that is, those who choose to live “naturally” with the newly expanded day length, and those who still abide by the government-mandated 24-hour clock. Time, in a sense, becomes meaningless as persistent daylight stretches from hours—32, 48, 72—to eventually weeks. The change in Earth’s rotation also cataclysmically affects gravity. Physical activities become more difficult, and humans gradually “slow” themselves. As a physiological result, people begin to experience dizziness and pains, symptoms of “gravity sickness,” referred to as “the syndrome.” Birds mysteriously drop from the sky and die. Earth’s magnetic field has withered, and now the Sun’s rays expose humanity to extreme radiation. Amid this bleak dystopian landscape, people also struggle with shortages of supplies, as a public in panic hoards food and gas, unsure of the future.

Meanwhile, Julia is suffering at school, isolated and ostracized by her peers. Her best friend, Hanna, relocates to Salt Lake City with her Mormon family. Her other neighborhood friend, Gabby, was sent to Catholic school when caught smoking cigarettes and returns only to run away with her boyfriend. Alone, Julia attends a party at popular girl Michaela’s house, but she is humiliated and mocked by the other children. Michaela flaunts her bourgeoning sexuality, and Julia must also navigate a hostile school environment where she is harassed for not wearing a bra. After a boy reveals her bare chest at the bus stop, Julia buys a training bra in secret to conform with the other adolescent girls. She begins to question herself, as well as actions of the people in her life, and considers that in addition to physiological effects, “the slowing” may also have psychological effects.

On Julia’s twelfth birthday, she opts to have dinner with her parents and her 84-year-old grandfather, Gene, instead of throwing a customary party with classmates. When Julia’s family goes to pick her grandfather up from his home, it is discovered that he is missing. Family tensions increase as Helen feels the effects of the syndrome and subsequently kills a pedestrian with her car. Joel becomes more emotionally distant, and Julia discovers that her father is having an affair with her beautiful piano teacher, Sylvia.

Earth’s rotation continues to slow and the consequences continue to escalate. In less than a year, toxic radiation leaks through the ozone layer, plants die-off, and Earth’s magnetic poles shift. Humans may not be in direct sunlight for an extended amount of time due to the dangers of radiation. Coinciding with these environmental shifts, Julia’s tween romance with Seth blossoms. They spend more time together, despite the limitations of what they can do outside. One day, they decide to ignore the orders to stay out of the Sun and venture to see if Sylvia is still alive. At midnight on a “white night”—a night in which the Sun does not set—Julia and Seth catch Julia’s father in a lie. Joel said that he would be at work, but the young couple see him at Sylvia’s house with suitcases in tow. Julia knows about her father’s clandestine romance with Sylvia, but in seeing the packed bags, she speculates that he may run away with her and abandon his family.

When Julia’s father returns home a day later, he informs his family of Gene’s death. On the evening of Julia’s birthday, Gene fell from a ladder in his bomb shelter bunker and fatally hit his head on the concrete floor. Julia’s grandfather was found wearing his gray suit, ready to join Julia for her birthday dinner.

Solar storms, or extended periods of sunlight, become more frequent. Seth is affected by the syndrome and can barely walk. He and his father move away to Mexico, and it is implied that Seth may be dying. Julia writes to him, but she never hears from Seth again. The story concludes with a 23-year-old Julia living with her parents, trying to decide if she wants to go to medical school—if one still exists. Julia’s parents have repaired their marriage in a quiet, resigned way. Now, the days have extended to weeks. Julia reflects to when she last saw Seth. She recalls, “We dipped our fingers in the wet cement, and we wrote the truest, simplest things we knewour names, the date, and these words: We were here” (269).